Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, February 12, 1999

Chris Isaak

Success calls for a regular guy
whose songs reveal
personal loss

By Tim Ryan


'YOUR shirts are ready at ABC Cleaners, Mr. Ryan," an unknown voice states over the telephone.

"Shirts? I don't take shirts to the ..."

"This is Chris Isaak," the singer interrupts, laughing at his own game. "You ready to roll?"

Isaak, 42, starts the interview in a conversational mode, more like a next door neighbor than a singer who's sold millions of records. He's been in a recording studio in San Francisco, his home of many years, working on a new theme song for a "late, late, late" night talk show that he "thinks" will follow David Letterman.

"I usually don't do this kind of stuff because it means I have to eventually talk to business people," Isaac said. "I feel like saying to them, 'Look, if I get to do what I want to do and we can talk directly and settle everything now, OK, here's my price. But if I have to talk to attorneys or some business guys, it's going to cost a lot more.'

"Time spent with them is time in hell!"

Life has otherwise been heavenly to the Stockton-born Isaac, who's kept his life in perspective even after landing celebrity status in music and motion pictures. The bachelor lives in the same house in the Sunset District of San Francisco where he resided before he got famous.

"I didn't buy a mansion in L.A. because it would take me away from friends and family," Isaac said. "Owning a lot of things, especially a lot of big, expensive things, can make you a hostage.

"I share backyard walls with a guy who's retired army and another one who works at a delicatessen. They know what I do but couldn't care less."

Most of Isaak's friends are surfers and working people.

Isaak took up surfing in his early 30s in the frigid, uncrowded waves of the Bay area. On the day of our interview, Isaac planned to head south to Half Moon Bay to surf the big wave spot called Mavericks where Hawaii surfer Mark Foo drowned years ago.

"I paddle out at Mavericks, I sit out out at Mavericks, and I watch a lot of waves go by at Mavericks," Isaak said. "I'm the extra buoy at Mavericks. I'm the worst surfer who has ever been out there, but I like being there with my friends.

"Occasionally I even try to catch a wave, usually at the last minute, then I scream, back off, and sob like a little school girl."

Joking is another thing Isaak does well and he often makes himself and his music the brunt. He says there's no easy way to explain the process of writing music, except to say, "It's either very simple or really complex."

Christopher Joseph Isaak was born in June 1956, three months after Elvis -- a major inspiration for Isaak -- scored his first No. 1 record. Dorothy, Isaak's mother, said in an interview a decade ago that she was singing "Blue Suede Shoes" when she gave birth to Chris.

Isaak and older brother Nick became big fans of country music and often sat outside their parents' bedroom singing sad country songs until his mother wept. While living in Japan in 1979 as part of a University of the Pacific exchange program, Isaak turned to rock 'n' roll even though he had never had a band or performed music in public. The inspiration? Elvis Presley, of course.

"I came across a copy of Elvis's "The Sun Sessions" (recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis in 1954). It was a real turning point for me," Isaac said. "I knew that this is what I wanted to do."

When he got back to the United States, Isaak commuted to San Francisco to recruit a rockabilly band which he would call Silver-tone. His recording career in the mid-80s started with the albums "Silvertone" and "Chris Isaak." The breakthrough album came a year later with "Heart Shaped World," followed by "San Francisco Days," and Isaac's personal favorite, "Forever Blue." "Baja Sessions" was released in 1996; "Speak of the Devil" arrived last year.

"Speak of the Devil" is Isaak's most experimental album to date. A musician uses a PVC pipe as an instrument on one cut; Isaak works with a broken amplifier which he plugs in and unplugs to give the sound of thunder on another song. Around and in between selections, Isaak uses a phone message of an overseas call, and crickets also sing along to one track.

Though Isaak is known for his moody ballads, hurting-over-a-woman tomes, and ability to convey sorrow, Isaak says he's not somebody "who's real comfortable in letting my emotions out." Except in music.

"When I sing the words about feelings and heartache, it seems natural for me. I can sing about anything that I'm feeling.

"Some of the inspiration comes out of my own life, but I don't think people relate it as being my life but their own lives. To be able to do that with a song is the the magic."

And that's how Isaac measures whether a record works.

"When I listen to John Lennon singing 'In My Life,' it's my life that I hear. If the song is written from a common place then we all share in it because we all have the same emotions."

"Forever Blue" derived from a letter Isaak was writing to an ex-girlfriend.

"I wrote that letter 10 times that day and still didn't send it because it wasn't right," he said. "Then I picked up my guitar and wrote it to her in song. When I got done I felt that everything had fallen into place what I couldn't say in a letter."

Inspiration comes in "bizarre, unexpected ways" for Isaak. Throughout his house there are chalk boards so he can write something down as the mood strikes.

"When I decide to write I get it done pretty quick," he said. "The more time you give me the more time I have to screw it up."

Before hitting the surf, Isaak asks a favor.

"Could you let people know that after the concert the band always comes out in front of the stage or into the hall to meet with fans, sign autographs, or talk story. That's one of the really fun parts of this job."


On stage

bullet Who: Chris Isaak
bullet When and Where: Monday, Sheraton Waikiki Hawaii Ballroom; Tuesday, Maui Arts & Cultural Center Castle Theatre; and Wednesday, Kona Surf Convention Center; all shows start at 8 p.m.
bullet Cost: On Oahu, $25-$45; Maui, $32.50-$45; Kona, $27.50-$30; available at all Connection outlets 545-4000 and 1-800-333-3388
bullet Call: 922-4422

Do It Electric
Click for online
calendars and events.

E-mail to Features Editor

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
[Stylebook] [Feedback]

© 1999 Honolulu Star-Bulletin